Thursday, 17 March 2016

Widows And Orphans - Short Story for Syria

A fully laden table for our expected visitors.


Feasting my eyes on the resplendent banquet, the colours of the food, the architecture of the tureens and serving dishes, I felt I was looking down on a miniature city. Even the nagila standing tall like a minaret, abutting the domed tureen of harira. It was as if the whole variety of the souk had been brought home here on the table, only without the bustle. My father came and stood beside me and admired the panorama too. He approached the spread and circled all four sides of it. He idly fingered the tassels of the tablecloth. Then with his other hand he grabbed a second fistful of the textile as it hung down over the edge of the table. He gave it a gentle tug as if he was straightening it. Still grasping it, he turned and grinned at me. I put my hand to my mouth, surely he wasn’t going to try it now? What would Mama say?

Was I going to be cast as silent witness and conspirator?

For Papa was a devil, always impressing me and my brothers with his magic tricks. The greatest of them being when he advanced on a table, less laden than this yet still with things placed there, whereupon he would make a great show of stretching his arms out and wiggling his fingers and summoning up the sound of the wind with his exhaling. He would stop at one of the short sides and grab the two cornerflaps of the cloth, standing there with great ceremony and concentration, before yanking away the cloth from under all the things stood upon it and bringing the cloth around his shoulders like a magician’s cape. And miraculously nothing would fall from the table or even topple over on the now exposed cypress grain. And no matter how often we children were witness to the magic, we could not but help burst into thunderous clapping.

The thunder of the planes overhead rattled some of the plates even from so high.


The high explosive produced less of a consummate pulling away of the mantle from under us. Mortar was yanked away from bricks, so that the whole room came tumbling down on top of me. I heard my father breathe like the wind into my ear, only he sounded very angry. A real sirocco, bringing with it dust and sand clogging my throat. But then I realised I couldn’t see anything. It was total darkness. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or shut. It wasn’t my father at all, but the roar of the air being sucked out of my chest and my heart hammering trying to drag it back in. Like my mother would with us kids from playing outside. But I couldn’t come back in since I could move no part of me, pressed under the weight of my collapsed house.

Where was Mama? There was no ‘in’ to come back into.

‘In’ was on top of me. In was trying to press inside my body.

I tried to cry out but I have no idea if any sound left my mouth. The only thing I could feel was rats scurrying over me. Scampering to feast on the banquet meant for us. But as a glint of light blinded me, igniting flashes in my bruised eyes, I realised it wasn’t rats, but bricks being peeled from my skin and scraped away off me. Papa was coming to save me and pull me from the rubble.

But it wasn’t Papa.

They scooped up all the broken shards of me and swept me into a taxi to whisk me to hospital. I screamed for my parents, but the sound got mangled in my parched throat and I think they just thought it was from the pain I was in. Someone gave me an injection. Mama hadn’t been in the room with me and Papa. So she should have been safe. The streetlights overhead strafed me as the taxi passed under them. I was reblinded about every three seconds. This was like being at the disco with a stroboscope. Only I couldn’t move, let alone dance of course. I was afraid, that awful sensation when the strobelight freezes your body, then eclipses it altogether. I didn’t think I’d ever get my body back from the darkness.

I floated away.

I couldn’t follow my dreams, except that I briefly saw Papa perform his tablecloth trick and drape himself once again in the fabric. But then the picture moved to his whole body wrapped in the cloth like a cere sheet so that not even his face was visible. Mama and my brothers were nowhere to be seen in the dreams. Then I got confused in the dream and thought since they were not here that I was the one who had died and was being removed to be sent into the ground. Eventually I woke up and saw that my whole body was set in plaster with the bed tilted up and a spaghetti of tubes hooked into my arm.

I must have looked like a nagila.

The television they had hanging on the wall of the hospital showed the news on with the volume turned down. There was film of a minaret blasted by explosives so that it lay down across the rest of the demolished mosque. Another echo of the nagila, though this time no longer tall and proud. These images replayed about every ten minutes, so that you could easily imagine it to be a new destruction of a mosque, until they had razed every last one in our land. We are all Muslims aren’t we? So how can we spill each other’s blood and pull down the mosques? It made no sense to me, though the bomb that dropped on our house had been sent from another continent altogether.

I knitted back together like one of Grandma’s needlework creations..

But I had a bad limp. I hobbled my way back to my house. But it was completely flat as a pitta. Well not completely flat. More like when you tip out all the jigsaw pieces from their box and then smooth the pile a bit to reveal the colours. But I wouldn’t be able to put this together even though I held the picture of it in my head. Even though the doctors had put all my pieces together whole again. I didn’t go rooting around in the debris. What could it tell me? What if the tablecloth was no longer buried in there somewhere? What would that tell me about my father’s fate? Mama hadn’t been in the room with me and Papa. So she should have been safe. But now I see that the whole house has gone.  I needed to know where my parents were. But next door where our neighbours used to live was only a crater of scorched brown earth. The bombs seemed hell-bent on returning our cities back into the desert. All our street had fled their houses so there was no one to ask. No friendly faces left at all. All the familiar landmarks were still in place, yet I felt completely



The myth of the flying carpet was just that. A myth. I made my escape like so many others. A camel train without the camels. People with humps on their back under their baggage. On foot under the endless sun and then into a camp just beyond the border. I had no papers. They wrote down my name and ran a finger down lists of names on sheet after sheet of paper. They said my parents weren’t in this camp but they might be in another one. They would try and trace them for me so we could be reunited. Then their fingers returned to the top of the list again for the person after me.

I was adrift.

All the faces here were unknown to me, yet they were instantly recognisable. Tired. Drawn. Fearful. Twitching. I wondered if my own face was similar. But there were no mirrors for me to check. There was nothing much to do all day. There were a few toys but none of us child adults played with them. There were no books for me to read. The gruel they served every day was colourless and made me pang for the rainbow of foods that had sat there on the table before the fiery rain of spicy seasoning and red hot sauces fell from above. That’s what it was, the children’s faces also were totally lacking in colour. They ate without joy and the blanched food just reflected this. All we had in the camp was television. I wondered if one of the refugees had hauled their satellite dish with them here on their back. The sound was turned down just like the hospital. Nobody ever watched it except me. I guess they had their own constant rolling images inside their heads already. Watching the ticker script at the bottom, pleading, begging for it just to have some new words to say, just by way of change. But it never did. Perhaps they only changed when you weren’t looking. I felt like I had at school, being forced to repeat the words over And over again until I read them out correctly. Only here I never graduated.

Images of dead men hung upside down by their feet.

Like joints of lamb hanging from the ceiling of our butcher’s shop. Gravity had effected the modesty of veiling their faces behind their clothes draping down, though it could not conceal the impiety of the flesh so exposed in its place. The dangling pendulums may have been still, but beneath them coming and going were observers pointing up and gesticulating wildly. The camera lens was too far away to pick up their faces clearly. Heaving shoulders could have indicated crying or laughing. I deduced that since there were no mothers present, these men had to be those rejoicing in the devil’s verdicts enacted above their heads.

A man presented the stumps of his arms where the hands had been cut off.

The scrolling text explained that he had played the oud which was viewed as taking him away from prayer and devotion and consequently they had put a stop to it. I couldn’t quite comprehend this as the devil dogs running it all had lots of songs and music of their own. But then maybe you can’t march to a lute. I shuddered as I thought of my father and his beautiful hands that could do magic tricks. If he fell into their hands they would remove his as diabolic. I could only hope that torn from me his heart would be too heavy to show his magic. Maybe he had forsworn all magic anyway once he realised it could not hold up his house or keep his family together and safe.


A kid holding up severed heads, one in each hand. Like a bowling ball. Like a roadside watermelon seller. There is colour in his face alright. But not in that of the floating head. Bloodless, Like the children here in the camp. We are all orphans even if our parents are still alive somewhere. We have all died and lost our blood. Our heads pulsing with thoughts and dreads separated from the rest of our numbed bodies. Another boy clutches a decapitated head by the hair with both his hands. Like a bag of heavy shopping. These youths are the same age as my brothers. An adult fighter is crouched down holding his little child so that its threshing feet dance across a severed head lying on the ground. I can only think of a hamster in its wheel. This child lost to humanity before he can even speak. A blank page already inscribed with blood.  


Katherine Hajer said...

The POV and the slightly abstracted, poetic descriptions really drive home the awfulness. Well done.

Natalie Wood said...

I agree. A very good piece of writing.

Adam B said...

From an intellectual point of view, I see the author behind the story, the creator imagining the horrors seen on television or on the internet, to show the reader beyond the page the atrocities heaped upon the individual. To make concrete in the telling of the story the life and reality of those suffering of whose abstraction we see on nightly news bulletins.
It is on this level, the one of reader, that the story unfolds as a pastiche of images where we are transported into the deprivation and horror. The distant becomes close through the relating of everyday occurrences, the relationship between father and child. It is the loss of that relationship that the atrocities committed come into sharp relief.
Another wonderful piece of writing.
Adam B